Yesterday was the shortest day of the year but it was a very long day for politics. Malcolm Chisholm, surely one of the most decent politicians in Scotland, resigned because his rebellion against the Labour party line on Trident was ‘not tenable’ with his role as Minister for Communities. Kenny MacAskill, surely one of the most opportunist, nearly blew a fuse in his Newsnight Scotland rant against the risks and expense of Edinburgh’s proposed tram system. Earlier in the day, while the winter sun was still shining, the city council voted overwhelmingly (with one exception) in favour of a public investment which will bring the capital city into the 21st century. Now only nutters and nationalists are against the trams.
The view from my seat in the public gallery showed exactly why Edinburgh needs trams. Through the big windows of the City Chambers you can see the constant stream of buses and taxis along Princes Street, while cars churn relentlessly up the Mound. It will take an enormous hike in oil prices to prise us motorists off the driving seat and into the buses (or on to our feet) but curiously statistics across Europe show that trams are more likely to do the trick.
I was impressed by the debate when for over an hour, as one LibDem councillor put it, concensus broke out in the City Chamber. Perhaps undue time was allowed to the dissenters – Tina Woolnough of the Blackhall Community Association (whatever that may be) and Councillor Steve Cardownie (Kenny’s new mate) – but then the downside of the democratic process is that it can allow mavericks to punch well above their weight ( in Cardownie’s case that would still be quite a hefty punch).
Ms Woolnough fears for the badgers on the wildlife corridors of North Edinburgh and went on at length in an attempt to rubbish the idea that trams increase access to all parts of the city, that they are cleaner and quicker than buses and that they carry more people. Cardownie just ranted and it occurs to me that the louder and wilder the rant (think Blair on Iraq) the greater the need to silence that inner voice: both Cardownie and MacCaskill once spoke almost as loudly in favour of the trams. (Interesting to compare that ranting bluster with Malcolm Chisholm’s much quieter tone of voice.)
By comparison the case for the trams was mercifully brief and beautifully to the point (okay, okay I am biased, I think trams are a seriously good idea as any sane person must). Transform Scotland, the Light Rail Transit Association and Edinburgh University Students Association, all argued with succinct clarity that Scotland’s capital needs a modern public transport system that enhances the quality of life that modern economies are built on; citing of course other European cities who compete with Edinburgh for world trade and tourism – such as Barcelona, Dublin, Lyons, Paris, Manchester.
And don’t forget Croydon. Labour fought their corner well but curiously it was the Tory leader Councillor Iain Whyte who came up with some of the most clinching arguments. Always beware a former colleague. Both LibDem Fred Macintosh and Whyte were on Tina’s side in last year’s campaign against the congestion charge. But now like a pair of housetrained badgers they politely savaged her case against trams. Whyte remembers when Tina’s wildlife corridor was a suburban railway line, he prefers to call it a ‘transport corridor’. Besides, he has visited the tram cities of Europe and even went as far as Croydon where the Tory MP who opposed the tram scheme has been so thoroughly convinced of the benefits he is campaigning for an extension – not least because the peripheral housing estate is now so well connected with the town centre that unemployment in the most deprived area has fallen by 30%.
All of which did not prevent Newsnight Scotland producing a characteristically perverse and negative report using 50 year old newsreel to imply Edinburgh would be going back not forward and allowing undue airspace to Kenny Mac, the ScotNat MSP for the Lothians, who promises that when the nats get into power next May yesterday’s 56 council votes approving the business case for the trams will be torn up and consigned to history. Along with Edinburgh.